The alternative way to get a PhD

Qualifying at the highest level was not without pitfalls
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The Independent Online

I had always been satisfied with gaining an MPhil by dissertation in the history of education at the University of Leeds. I had a wonderful experience there, but always felt a little peeved that I had not gone on to do a PhD.

I suppose in some ways I was lacking in confidence, even though my tutors, the eminent Professor PHJH Gosden, and the academic stalwart Dr Paul Sharp, had advised me to aim higher. Yet other university contacts, supposedly in the know, had assured me that an MPhil would serve my interests as far as UK educational establishments were concerned.

I knew I wanted a career in academic research, so I thought I’d stick with the MPhil, qualify early and perhaps have a stab at a PhD at a later stage in my career. Woe betide anyone who puts off for tomorrow what they can do today.

To some extent, the MPhil seemed to gain the recognition I sought, for I was soon offered a three-year contract as a research associate in the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. This employment was invigorating, and working with the historians Dr Peter Cunningham, Dr Phil Gardner, Dr Bobbie Wells, and Dr (now Professor) Wendy Robinson, I gained invaluable knowledge in my subject area and useful experience of what it was like working in a research team. I also started writing articles for publication.

By 2000, I had published six refereed papers in quality academic journals. My family and friends were living in London, so I was delighted to be subsequently appointed senior research fellow in the School of Education at Roehampton University.

It was at this stage that my colleague, Professor Pat Mahony, suggested I go for a PhD in history by published work as opposed to one by thesis. And so began a long quest to find an institution that could offer me this somewhat obscure route to a doctoral degree. Not all institutions do this. At first, I approached a number of universities at home and abroad. American universities only provide for professional or traditional PhD study. I decided to confine my inquiries to the UK.

The main obstacle was that to do a PhD by published work, you normally either have to be a graduate or a member of the staff of the university in which you want to enrol. So I approached the institution where I did my first degree, Brunel University, where, coming top of my class as an undergraduate, I had pursued an engaging and valuable course lasting for four years.

I applied to do the PhD by published work and was assigned a professor whose specialism, mainly the history of slavery, was not relevant to my field. I was accepted at Brunel and paid the fees. I had to put forward the publications to be examined. I had by this time written two published books as well as more journal articles, and a selection from these were to form the basis of the PhD. I had to write a supporting statement, highlighting my methodology and why the submission represented a distinct and significant contribution to knowledge. Many emails were exchanged with the appointed professor who was assiduous in his task.

Huge delays set in, but eventually the supporting statement was ready for consideration by a research committee. But the committee did not report for months. When it did, the committee declared dismissively that the statement was not up to scratch and required another year’s supervision.

Bitterly disappointed I felt that my world had caved in. I asked my tutor to appeal to the committee so as to find out some more information on how I might best proceed.

Comments had been bandied about, such as that my previous publications should not have been in the public domain. The tutor repeatedly emailed the chairman of the committee, but got no reply. I decided my best bet was to give up and look elsewhere.

I approached the University of Glamorgan. Fortunately, I knew a professor in Wales who had connections with the university as well as with The College of Teachers, the oldest professional body for teachers and for those who work alongside them in the UK, who had sponsored me for my bachelor’s degree.

The Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Glamorgan was far more slick and efficient than Brunel’s. I sent in a more up-to-date collection of selected published works, and my personal tutor – Professor David Turner – was more understanding and helpful, at the same time ensuring that I satisfied all the course requirements.

In 2009, I was invited for the viva. Despite feeling nervous, the examination went as well as could be expected. The external examiner, Professor Joyce Goodman, asked me to make some changes to the supporting statement which I duly carried out. In January 2010, I got a phone call to say I had passed my PhD by publication! It was wonderful news. And so ended a chapter in my life that had been harrowing and distasteful at times. My long-held wish to qualify at the highest level in a subject area close to my heart was finally realised.

Should you study for a PhD by published work?

Pros
* The publications are peer-refereed, so an examiner would find it difficult to argue that they do not meet the grade.
* As students tend to be part time and register for short periods, the cost of study is lower.
* You can combine producing published works and gaining a PhD.

Cons
* There are problems with university regulations as there is no consensus on length format or purpose. It is not always clear whether the supporting statement is intended to be an application form or an in-depth report.
* Some academics say a PhD by publication is not as good as a PhD by thesis.
*It may be hard to find a university to sponsor you.

The writer is a historian at the School of Education, Roehampton University, London

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